Remembering Anti-Racism Leadership: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sadly, this Friday marks the 40th anniversary of a world-changing day—the day that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. It is hard to believe that it has been four decades now! I can still remember the day well, and exactly where I was, and how I learned. One of my African American undergraduates at the University of California called to tell me on the phone. I can still feel my and his pain as we talked, and the sense of national despair that soon developed in many areas, like it was just yesterday.

The day before he was killed, Dr. King gave one of the great speeches ever given by an American, one called “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” It was given on April 3, 1968, at Mason Temple (Church of God) in Memphis, Tennessee. Early in this amazing speech on behalf of striking garbage workers, Dr. King speaks in terms that are still quite relevant today:

The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. . . . But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. . . . The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same: “We want to be free.”

The nation is still very sick with racial oppression. There is still trouble and confusion, yet people are hopeful and rising up across the globe to improve their conditions, seeking still to be free of racism, gender oppression, and class oppression.

Soon in his speech, Dr. King adds historical and philosophical reflections for which, even as a young man, he was deservedly famous:

And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. . . . Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.

He was alluding to the Vietnam war, as well as struggles against racial and class oppression. He had become very critical of what imperialistic war, and had lost supporters, especially in the white elites. Indeed, he may have been assassinated because of these views as much as for his black liberation views. His views speak very much to our time, for once again we have a president, with a war-mongering entourage, who decided to solve (what now we know were fictional) problems overseas by means of violence. Yet, violence usually does not work, as Dr. King constantly reminds us. It rebounds and tends to trigger yet more violence.

Dr. King continues by speaking of the world’s human rights revolution, the revolution for better living conditions for the world’s oppressed:

If something isn’t done, and done in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed. Now, I’m just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period to see what is unfolding. And I’m happy that He’s allowed me to be in Memphis. . . . The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers.

He then proceeds to note that there will be yet more Memphis marches to show the world that 1,300 of “God’s children” are suffering and hungry. King had come to see that fighting racism meant fighting its impact and consequences in many areas, such as in the low wages for US occupations in which workers of color, such as African Americans, are concentrated, like the 1,300 Memphis sanitation workers.

After telling the story of the Good Samaritan, King concludes with these rather chilling and far-seeing words, which seem to indicate he felt death in the air:

Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation. . . . Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. . . . I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!

Multiracial America: Progress?

There’s an interesting piece in today’s New York Times by Mireya Navarro that takes the multiracial identity that Barack Obama claims as a jumping off point to assess the rising trend of people who identify as multiracial within the U.S. The article quotes Jenifer Bratter, assistant professor in sociology at Rice University, describing the pressures of trying to fit into one “authentic” racial identity:

“There’s this notion that there’s an authentic race and you must fit it. We’re confronted with the lack of fit.”

The article goes on to mention the last census data which reveal a steady rise in the number of interracial marriages.

The 2000 Census counted 3.1 million interracial couples, or about 6 percent of married couples. For the first time, the Census that year allowed respondents to identify themselves as being two or more races, a category that now includes 7.3 million Americans, or about 3 percent of the population.

James McBride, author of the compelling memoir, The Color of Water, about growing up in a Brooklyn housing project with his white mother says:

“When you’re mixed, you see how absurd this business of race is.”

Absurd indeed, yet a tenaciously powerful frame. My personal perspective and experience is shaped by the fact that my family includes multiracial kids who are beloved nieces and their equally beloved black dad and white mom. I hope that an increasingly multiracial America means a better place for my nieces to grow up.

Yet, lots of people still oppose interracial unions, and by extension, the multiracial people created from them. Opposition comes from a range of constituencies, such as the sort of white supremacists I study who are vehemently opposed to such “race mixing” and see this as the “mongrelization” to black nationalists who see this as genocide. Anti-miscegenation laws have been eliminated, but effectively controlling informal sanctions against interracial relationships remain entrenched in the culture.

I wonder, then, if a “multiracial America” is a sign of progress in 2008 as we come upon the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s death. What do you think? Drop a comment before you go.

Rethinking the US Foundation: Slavery & the Constitution (Part I)

        The speech on race and racism given by Senator Obama, and especially the negative attacks on it and on others who bring up the issue of slavery suggests that we need to revisit the data on some of this country’s bloody 240 years or so of slavery:

The year is 1787, the place Philadelphia. Fifty-five men are meeting in summer’s heat to write a constitution for the “first democratic nation.” Here we have an early fictions central ever since to the white racial frame. These are men of European origin, mostly well-off by the standards of their day. Significantly, at least 40 percent are or have been slave owners, and a significant proportion of the others profit to some degree as merchants, shippers, lawyers, bankers from the trade in slaves, commerce in slave-produced agricultural products, or supplying provisions to slaveholders and slave-traders. The chair of the constitutional convention, George Washington, is one of the richest men in the colonies because of the hundreds of black men, women, and children he and Martha have held in bondage. Washington and colleagues create the first “democratic” nation for whites only. In the preamble the founders cite “We the People,” but this does not encompass those enslaved–one fifth of the then population. Slavery was central to the U.S. Constitution, as James Madison made clear in his detailed notes on the convention.

Slavery had once been of some importance in all states, but northern states were moving away from slavery, and some had a growing abolitionist sentiment. Even so, many northern merchants, shippers, and consumers still depended on products produced by southern plantations, and many merchants sold goods to the plantations. (Notice that this extensive slavery creates much of the wealth, the circulating surplus capital, of the new nation, and indeed helps greatly to create its possibility to rebel against Great Britain and be a new nation.)

By the end of the summer of 1787 there were at least seven sections in the new U.S. Constitution where the white framers had the system of slavery in mind: (1) Article 1, Section 2, which counts slaves as three fifths of a person; (2) Article 1, Sections 2 and 9, which apportion taxes on the states using the three-fifths formula; (3) Article 1, Section 8, which gives Congress authority to suppress slave and other insurrections; (4) Article 1, Section 9, which prevents the slave trade from being abolished before 1808; (5) Article 1, Sections 9 and 10, which exempt goods made by slaves from export duties; (6) Article 4, Section 2, which requires the return of fugitive slaves; and (7) Article 4, Section 4, which stipulates that the federal government must help states put down domestic violence, including slave uprisings.

We still live under an undemocratically made U.S. Constitution, one substantially made by white male slaveholders. It is still part of the essential political-economic foundation of systemic racism and white privilege in the US. There is much here to continue a national dialogue, one bravely raised by Dr. Wright and Senator Obama, and even acknowledged recently by Secretary of State Rice.

Secretary Rice Supports Senator Obama — Sort Of

In a recent interview with the right-wing newspaper, The Washington Times, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, long a black conservative, accented the importance of slavery in the history of black and white Americans, both in the past and the present. She explicitly supported Senator Barack Obama’s speaking out about race in America and implicitly critiqued her white conservative colleagues (like Michael Medved and Pat Buchanan), whose naive and ill-informed notions about the Obama speech and/or slavery have recently been analyzed here. According to the news report on Rice’s interview, she said

that the United States still has trouble dealing with race because of a national “birth defect” that denied black Americans the opportunities given to whites at the country’s very founding.

In the interview she made this comment:

Black Americans were a founding population. Africans and Europeans came here and founded this country together — Europeans by choice and Africans in chains. That’s not a very pretty reality of our founding.

It is significant that the elementary facts of this country’s racial history have to be accented still because of the great racial illiteracy among whites and many other nonblacks, and because of the propagandistic attempts to play down slavery and the rest of our racially oppressive history in many corners of this society, including the media. This news story on Rice continues:

As a result, Miss Rice told editors and reporters at The Washington Times, “descendants of slaves did not get much of a head start, and I think you continue to see some of the effects of that.”

Although putting the matter timidly and inaccurately (“not much of a head start,” indeed!), she does here flatly contradict the racist ranting of white analysts like Pat Buchanan, who recently accent a common white-supremacist view (portraying Obama as a “black hustler”) and seek to deny the current impact of the 85 percent of our history that was bloody slavery and violent legal segregation. Then Rice added another point:

That particular birth defect makes it hard for us to confront it, hard for us to talk about it, and hard for us to realize that it has continuing relevance for who we are today.

Here she continues her far-too-modest language (“us” instead of whites, for example) and neglects to mention the role of elite and other white actors in slavery, legal segregation, and contemporary racism. Of course, it is contemporary whites who are most of the “realization” problem here. It is not hard for most African Americans to talk about these issues; indeed that is the only reason there is now a renewed discussion in the white-controlled media about these racism issues right now.

It would be useful for Secretary Rice to speak more often and much more forcefully about these matters of U.S. history. She has the experience to accent it for head-in-the-sand white conservatives. Here she is contradicting her white Republican masters and probably deserves some modest credit for doing that. It is also interesting to see her supporting Senator Obama to some degree.

Racism and Antisemitism 2.0 Allowed in the U.S.

The expression “Web 2.0” is used by those in the digital-know to refer to dynamic websites where anyone can post content to the site, rather than the old (“Web 1.0”) static brochure-like websites which function more as a one-way transfer of information from “producers” to “consumers.”   Web 2.0 marks a shift away from the old one-to-many model toward a many-to-many model in which everyone is both a producer and a consumer.   Typically, the examples of Web 2.0 are participatory sites like the online encyclopedia Wikipedia (“which anyone can edit”), social networking sites such as MySpace or Facebook, video-sharing sites such as YouTube, and resource-sharing sites like Craigslist.

Now it seems racism and antisemitism have gone 2.0, and courts in the U.S. are allowing these trends to proceed unchecked.  The response in the U.S. stands in stark contrast to the response in other Western industrialized nations.    A few examples from the Amsterdam-based International Network Against CyberHate (INACH) illustrate this trend. First up, is a recent court decision involving U.S.-based Craigslist:

“Recently, the well-known online classified site was the center of a suit filed by Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The group filed the suit, stating it violated the Fair Housing Act when real estate ads ran displaying discriminating statements like, ‘no minorities’ and ‘no children.’  A judge in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Craigslist was not responsible for the listings as they were simply a messenger and should not be liable for the content of the ad.”

The judge in this case felt that it was an “impractical expectation” to suppose that Craigslist-staff could monitor ads at close watch, due to the “complexity of the task.” And, indeed, the model that founder Craig Newmark has developed, relies on an extremly small staff of people to run the site (fewer than 20 people) while users throughout the world do the bulk of the work of posting and responding to ads.   While other users on any Craigslist can “flag” a post as inappropriate, this is not the same as the owners of the site taking action to eliminate racist ads that are in clear violation of the Fair Housing Act.   In effect, the judge in this case has given Craigslist a free pass on racial discrimination because taking action would be “impractical” and “complex.”   In other words, it’s just easier to allow racial discrimination to continue than to figure out some way to address it.

Second, INACH cites examples of antisemitism from Facebook and YouTube:

More than 35,000 people have joined the Facebook group “Israel is not a country! … Delist it from Facebook as a country!” Type “Jew” into the search function on YouTube, and you’ll discover a host of anti-Semitic videos, including “911 Jew Spy Scandal 3” and a video clip in which National Polish Party’s Leszek Bubel declares himself a “proud anti-Semite.”

The article (re-posted from The Daily Titan) includes an interview with Andre Oboler, a post-doctoral fellow studying online public diplomacy at Bar-Ilan University, who says:

“This phenomena is spreading anti-Semitism and acceptability of anti-Semitism in new and increasingly effective ways.  Now in the Web 2.0 world, the social acceptability of anti-Semitism can be spread, public resistance lowered and hate networks rapidly established.”

And, perhaps just as troubling, those who might be most politically inclined to protest such actions are among the least likely to be engaged in Web 2.0 sites in meaningful ways.   As the article mentions, most of those heading progressive organizations have yet to sign up for a Facebook account, don’t spend much time on YouTube and aren’t all that sure what Google Earth is.  Oboler again:

“Community leaders tend to be the sort of people who are too busy to spend time looking at YouTube videos.  They are very, very focused on old media, which is a bit strange, since a lot of people their age are online.”

The attachment to (fetishization, even) of old media among progressives, whether community leaders or academics, does seem to be the prevailing norm and it is puzzling (and, perhaps the subject of another post).    The emergence of racism and antisemitism in the Web 2.0 era is perhaps not surprising given the prevalence of systemic racism that we talk about here often.  And, as defenders of an absolutist interpretation of free speech would be quick to argue, these sorts of racist, antisemitic expressions are regarded as “protected speech” here in the U.S.   But, I concur with the growing number of scholars who argue that hate speech causes harm and the defense of it as “protected speech” is one that values speech rights over human rights.

The acceptance of and tacit approval given these sorts of expressions within the U.S. stand in rather startling juxtaposition to the response by other Western industrialized nations, such as Germany.   Again, a recent (2/28/08) case from  INACH:

“Police in eight German states raided the homes of 23 suspects on Thursday as part of a lengthy probe into the illegal sale of right-wing extremist literature and audio material, the Federal Crime Office (BKA) said. A further 70 suspects had been identified in the investigation, which began in August 2006 after the German unit of U.S. online auction company eBay Inc. reported the sale via the Internet of far-right material, the BKA said. Twenty-four computers, around 50 memory devices and some 3,500 right-wing extremist CDs and LPs had been seized in Thursday’s raids, it added. ‘The measures are a continuation of … the fight against right-wing extremism on the Internet,’ the BKA said. ‘They show that the Internet is not a law-free zone and that online auctions are also checked from incriminating content.’ German laws ban Nazi emblems like the swastika but grant public funds to the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD), whose followers implicitly back racist and some Nazi ideas.”

According to the report (originally from Reuters), the German government follows a so-called “four pillar” strategy against right-wing extremism established in 2002.  The “four pillars” include:  1) educate all citizens on human rights, 2) strengthen civil society and promote civil courage, 3) help integrate foreigners and 4) target suspected far-right extremists.  This kind of “four pillar” approach implies an acknowledgment of a connection between the values of a democratic, civil society and the protection of human rights of all citizens.  This approach also acknowledges the threat implicit in racist, antisemitic propaganda and attempts to subvert it before it results in real harm to real people.

Certainly, the value of freedom of speech should be protected.  The freedom of speech in the U.S. constitution (First Amendment) is intended to protect dissent from governmental oppression, and that surely is under attack by the current political regime.     Yet, freedom of speech must always be balanced against the need for equality and human rights protection (Fourteenth Amendment).  The U.S case law developing around expressions of racism and antisemitism in the Web 2.0 era seems to only consider be concerned with a rather narrowly absolutist interpretation of the First Amendment, while placing little or no value on the Fourteenth Amendment’s promise of equal protection under the law.   In my view, the “four pillar” approach that the Germans have adopted comes closer to balancing both the right to free speech and human rights.   As Web 2.0 becomes more and more pervasive, and with it, more expressions of racism and antisemitism, we are going to have to think in more complex and nuanced ways about how to respond to these challenges.

On Pat Buchanan’s “A Brief for Whitey”

If there was any doubt left about the pervasiveness of the white racial frame or the connection between extremist white supremacy and the American mainstream, I think that Pat Buchanan has laid those doubts to rest with his recent blog post “A Brief for Whitey.”     Buchanan, of course, is the one-time presidential candidate and far-right political figure who is now a regularly featured talking-head on MSNBC.    His position as a frequent commentator on a major broadcast network means that he is annointed as “one of America’s leading conservative voices.”  And, in a play on the word “right,” Buchanan uses the tag line for his blog: “Right from the beginning.”    Unfortunately, his “Brief to Whitey” post reveals just how wrong he is about race in America.  Here’s Buchanan responding to Obama:

What is wrong with Barack’s prognosis and Barack’s cure?

Only this. It is the same old con, the same old shakedown that black hustlers have been running since the Kerner Commission blamed the riots in Harlem, Watts, Newark, Detroit and a hundred other cities on, as Nixon put it, “everybody but the rioters themselves.”

Was “white racism” really responsible for those black men looting auto dealerships and liquor stories, and burning down their own communities, as Otto Kerner said — that liberal icon until the feds put him away for bribery.

Barack says we need to have a conversation about race in America.

Fair enough. But this time, it has to be a two-way conversation. White America needs to be heard from, not just lectured to.

Here, Buchanan suggests that racial politics in the U.S. begin and end with ghetto revolts  which, apparently, happened in a political vacuum devoid of a long history of slavery, lynching, Jim Crow segregation, and ongoing racism and discrimination.  And, while Buchanan rather begrudgingly acknowledges the need to have a “conversation” about race, he ignorantly asserts that “White America needs to be heard from.”   When has “White America” not been heard from on race?   As Joe has written here and in print, any discussion of race in the U.S. is a set within a white racial frame that begins and ends with a white racial perspective.

Buchanan goes on to make a couple of egregious claims.

First, America has been the best country on earth for black folks. It was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships, grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known.

Buchanan illustrates perhaps the textbook example of paternalistic racism here.   The middle passage, the horrors of an inhumane, chattel slavery, the centuries of rape, degradation and brutalization are all brushed aside here with the callous “brought from Africa in slave ships” as if this were an unpleasant, but all-for-the-best journey.   The fact that Buchanan suggests that the introduction to “Christian salvation” somehow justifies or makes up for centuries of enslavement is typical of the mindset of a colonialist, who uses religion in the service of political  domination.

Buchanan goes on to make another assertion, this one even more ponderous:

Second, no people anywhere has done more to lift up blacks than white Americans. Untold trillions have been spent since the ’60s on welfare, food stamps, rent supplements, Section 8 housing, Pell grants, student loans, legal services, Medicaid, Earned Income Tax Credits and poverty programs designed to bring the African-American community into the mainstream. ….We hear the grievances. Where is the gratitude?

Buchanan once again demonstrates a real gift for paternalistic racism and couldn’t be more wrong about the facts.   Perhaps Buchanan should review the history of systematic disenfranchisement and overtly racist economic practices, such as the bombing of Black citizens by the U.S. government in the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, or the thousands of Black property-owners who were told to leave their property behind or die.    My experience in the classroom and in talking to people outside academia is that the overwhelming majority do not know about these “grievances,”  so in my view, we haven’t heard enough about them, and we certainly haven’t had anything like a national conversation about these matters.

Pat Buchanan’s rant is so offensive I don’t understand why he still has a job on a major network.   Oh, right, he’s a “leading voice of conservative America.”  That’s why.

Programming Alert: “Unnatural Causes”

We could improve overall health if we would address economic and racial inequality. That is the message of new documentary, “Unnatural Causes,” directed by Larry Adelman, and airing beginning tonight on PBS stations throughout the U.S. This short post is just a programming alert for those interested in viewing, recording or teaching about the series. I’ll be back after it airs with a post or two about individual episodes. You can check your local listings here.

Florida Apologizes to African Americans for Slavery

Interestingly, I have already been interviewed twice in the last two days about the Florida House and Senate’s bold move to pass an official apology for black slavery. As described by the

In a watershed moment in Florida’s race relations, a solemn state Legislature on Wednesday apologized for the Florida’s long history of slavery, expressing “profound regret for the shameful chapter in this state’s history.” Described as a bid for “reconciliation and healing,” the House this afternoon passed a resolution apologizing for state slavery laws dating back to 1822 – decades became Florida even became a state – that “perpetuated African slavery in one of its most brutal and dehumanizing forms.”

Only four southern and border slave states (Maryland, Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia) have so far taken similar action, plus just one northern slave state (New Jersey).

The extreme brutality and life-shortening character of this slavery is hard to exaggerate, naive media commentators like Michael Medved notwithstanding. The Florida newspaper summarizes just some of this extreme oppression:


Slaves could be subject to 39 lashes of a whip, administered to a bare back, for raising a hand or addressing a white person with language deemed to be abusive or offensive. For crimes as common as robbery, slaves could have their ears nailed to wooden posts for an hour or even be sentenced to death.

Some white commentators on slavery forget or intentionally play down how many Americans had lives crucified by slavery:

By 1860, at the onset of the Civil War . . . some 44 percent of Florida’s 140,000 residents were slaves.

We are a relatively young country, just over 400 years old. For the lion’s share of this history we were grounded in the extreme racial oppression of slavery and legal segregation. We are the only “advanced” industrial society for which that is the true. The first English colony was founded at Jamestown in 1607, and just twelve years later in 1619 the first Africans were purchased by English colonists from a Dutch-flagged slave ship. Notice that it was exactly 350 years from that year to 1969, the year that the last major civil rights law went into effect ending legal segregation in the United States. Few Americans realize that for nearly 90 percent of our history we were a country grounded in slavery and legal segregation.

In time and space, we are not far from our slaveholding founders. There have been only three long human lifetimes, about 232 years, since the Declaration of Independence, which was principally authored by the slaveholder Thomas Jefferson. We are just two human lifetimes from the 13th amendment, which ended 246 years of slavery in this country. And we are just one human lifetime from the days when white mobs brutally lynched hundreds of black Americans over every few years and a great many whites, including government officials, were members of Ku Klux Klan, the world’s oldest terrorist group. For just four decades, half one long human lifetime, we have been legally and officially a “free country.” That is certainly not enough time for this country to eradicate the continuing impacts of nearly 360 years of extreme racial oppression. A serious social science analysis of most major aspects of this society quickly reveals the continuing impact and significance of this deep structural foundation of racial oppression.

Recognizing this long history of racial oppression, as in the Florida apology, is but a first step in dealing with the consequences of this oppression. But it is a necessary first step and one that media commentators should well pay attention to and seek out the data to better understand the nation’s racial foundation.

Social Scientists’ Letter to Senator Obama on Systemic Racism

In a very important development, a large group of social scientists and others who research and teach on “race” and racism issues have just written a letter to Senator Barack Obama highlighting the signficance of his recent speech on US racial matters and calling on him to publicly recognize the great significance of systemic racism. That systemic racism has been the target of the important and considered critiques of racism by the distinguished African American minister, Dr. Jeremiah Wright, who has recently been in the news. Here is the letter in its entirety:

The Honorable Barack Obama
713 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510

Dear Senator Obama:

Thanks for jumpstarting a new national dialogue about the consequences of racial oppression. We understand that you must be careful and judicious given the racial quagmire of mainstream electoral politics in the United States . Still, your willingness to be a risk-taker, rather than simply hope the flurry went away, has pushed the conversation even further. By extension, you have started a conversation we hope will redress the problem of racism.

We eagerly anticipated and listened to your historic and eloquent speech about this nation’s serious racial problems. It was, indeed, an important and necessary speech. Acknowledging the recent characterizations of Reverend Wright, and given the proclivity of the media to misconstrue, misinterpret, or simply misrepresent not only the message but also the messenger we who are concerned with examining and counteracting racism and who have been trained to study social structures would stress that the serious problem of racism cannot be reduced to individual level bigotry or racial misunderstandings. Research consistently, both from the past and contemporary events, clearly demonstrates the systemic nature of white racism.

We are very mindful that most people in the United States want to dismiss racism as a relic of the past, while there are others who recognize and experience racism every day through its various forms (such as racial exploitation, marginalization, segregation, obfuscation, and minimalization). We also recognize that it has most recently manifested itself as a political ploy aimed at derailing your campaign. We strongly applaud your forthrightness in confronting rather than skirting the problem of racism. However, we are concerned that your remarks incorrectly reduce racism to mere racial prejudice. You remarked that Reverend Jeremiah Wright “expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic.” We believe that Wright is exactly right, that racism is not only endemic but is at the core of American society as reflected in a large and well established body of social scientific research. Specifically this research documents that racism is a highly institutionalized social condition and practice rather than something that exists solely within the minds of racists. The problem with your equating racism with prejudice and your characterization of “race” as the key issue rather than racism is that it does not account for the fact that racism is not merely a product of intentional (though perhaps sometimes unconscious) interactions between individuals, but rather the result of deeply seated social and institutional practices and habits. The use of language like “the race issue” or, as you put it, “race is an issue” is therefore confusing and evades a more real and serious discussion of racism. Such questions would necessarily include: How does “race” differ from racism? What forms does racism currently take? What types of solutions need to be identified to eradicate racism in our lifetime? And how do Western/US institutionalized racial practices distort the socio-political and economic landscape that continuously reinvigorates racism?

Though you rightly recognize “many of the disparities that exist in the African American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from earlier generations that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow”, we would also stress the historical patterns of racism/“race”-based exclusion did not simply disappear because fewer European Americans are overtly bigoted. Long after many Americans cease to consciously and actively discriminate against racialized “others,” there persists racist social patterns dictating where people live, which organizations they belong, what schools they attend and so on – that were created during slavery and de jure segregation. For this reason contemporary social and institutional structures are products of racist foundations. As such, they perpetuate the practices of the nation’s racist past, even though many of the people populating these structures may not be overtly bigoted. In short, racism entails social and economic exclusion and discrimination, not just racial hatred.

Given the economic, cultural, and psychological destruction systemic racism inflicts on all Americans we acknowledge your contribution to this vital dialogue regarding racial exploitation. We further recognize, as implied in your speech, that the questions are not about “race” – whatever that means – but about racism, and that our nation’s future will not be served by racial amnesia but by a commitment to dismantle every plank, nail, and screw of America’s extremely well constructed system of racial oppression.

In times such as these it is rare indeed to find one such as yourself willing to take on the problems of America . We look forward to supporting your efforts to address the problem of racism both during your campaign and presidency. Feel free to call upon us as we freely extend our hands, minds, and efforts to the necessary changes that America must achieve. Together, therefore we eagerly await the release of your comprehensive set of public policy proposals to deal with the enduring problem of systemic racism that keeps the American dream deferred for so many citizens.


Johnny E. Williams, Ph.D Trinity College Hartford , CT

Noel A. Cazenave, Ph.D University of Connecticut Storrs , CT

Corey Dolgon, Ph.D Worcester State College Worcester, MA

Thomas W. Volscho, Ph.D Candidate University of Connecticut Storrs , CT

Walda Katz-Fishman. Ph.D Howard University Washington , DC

Nadia Kim, Ph.D Loyola Marymount University Los Angeles , CA

Warren S. Goldstein, Ph.D Univ. Of Central Florida Orlando , Florida

Robert Pankin, Ph.D Providence College Providence , RI

Angie Beeman Ph.D Candidate University of Connecticut Storrs , CT

Vijay Prashad, Ph.D Trinity College Hartford , CT

Judith Blau, Ph.D Sociologist Without Borders/UNC Chapel Hill , NC

Erma Lawson, Ph.D University of North Texas Denton , TX

Marina Adler, Ph.D UMBC Baltimore, MD

Claire Reinelt, Ph.D Leadership Learning Community Oakland , CA

Mindy Fried, M.S.W., Ph.D Arbor Consulting Partners Boston , MA

Joe Feagin, Ph.D Texas A&M University College Station , TX

Cara Bowman, Ph.D Candidate Boston University Boston , MA

Elaine McDuff, Ph.D Truman State University Kirksville , MO

Levon Chorbajian, Ph.D UMass-Lowell Lowell , MA

Mark Cramer, Ph.D Sciences-Po & Univ. of Paris Paris , France

Jill M. Humphries, Ph.D Columbia University New York, NY

Fred L. Pincus, Ph.D UMBC Baltimore, MD

Marecus Matthews, Ph.D Candiate Univ. of South Carolina Columbia , SC

Lois Benjamin, Ph.D Hampton University Hampton, VA

Ronald H. Evans, Ph.D Bentley College Waltham , MA

Christina Jackson, Ph.D Candidate UC Santa Barbara Santa Barbara, CA

Sharon Elise, Ph.D Cal State Univ. San Marcos San Macros, CA

Eric A. Grollman, Ph.D Candidate Indiana University Bloomington , IN

Charles Pinderhughes, Ph.D Candidate Boston College Chestnut Hill , MA

Augustine J. Kposowa, Ph.D Univ. of California Riverside Riverside , CA

David G. Embrick, Ph.D Loyola University-Chicago Chicago, IL

Jerome Rabow, Ph.D UCLA Los Angeles, CA

Rosalyn Baxandall, Ph.D SUNY at Old Westbury Old Westbury , NY

Doll Kennedy, Ph.D Candidate Union Theological Seminary New York , NY

Jenny Korn, Ph.D Candidate Northwestern University Evanston , IL

Woody Doane, Ph.D University of Hartford West Hartford , CT

Denise A. Narcisse, Ph.D, MPA Youngstown State University Youngstown , OH

Julie M. Thompson, Ph.D Hamline University Saint Paul , MN

Peter Rachleff, Ph.D Macalester College St. Paul, MN

Keith P. Feldman, Ph.D Candidate Univ. of Washington-Seattle Seattle, WA

Christopher Malone, Ph.D. Pace University New York , NY

Kelvin Monroe , Ph.D Candidate Washington State Univ. Pullman , WA

Jennifer Mueller, Ph.D Candidate Texas A&M University College Station , TX

Rita S. Fierro, Ph.D Temple University Philadelphia , PA

Richard Milk, Ph.D Texas Lutheran University Seguin , TX

Gwenn Eylath, Ph.D Marian College Indianapolis , IN

Mieka Brand, PhD University of Virginia Charlottesville , VA

Anthony Monteiro,Ph.D Temple university Philadelphia, PA

Victoria Rankin Marks, Ph.D George Washington Univ. Washington , D.C.

Elizabeth Higginbotham University of Delaware Newark , DE

Racial Illiteracy and US Media Commentators

Michael Medved, syndicated talk radio host and conservative media figure , has decided now that he has the scholarly credentials to lecture Americans (and apparently Senator Obama for bringing the subject up in his famous speech on race) about how North American slavery’s impact is so often exaggerated. Slavery, it appears, is not a really major part of this country’s foundation, and has little real significance for Americans today. Medved begins a recent commentary with this panegyric on U.S. goodness:

Those who want to discredit the United States and to deny our role as history’s most powerful and pre-eminent force for freedom, goodness and human dignity invariably focus on America’s bloody past as a slave-holding nation. Along with the displacement and mistreatment of Native Americans, the enslavement of literally millions of Africans counts as one of our two founding crimes—and an obvious rebuttal to any claims that this Republic truly represents “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” According to America-bashers at home and abroad, open-minded students of our history ought to feel more guilt than pride, and strive for “reparations” or other restitution to overcome the nation’s uniquely cruel, racist and rapacious legacy. . . . . Unfortunately, the current mania for exaggerating America’s culpability for the horrors of slavery bears no more connection to reality than the old, discredited tendency to deny that the U.S. bore any blame at all.

Notice that Medved begins by playing down with tame language (“displacement and mistreatment”) the very long and often genocidal history of white government actors and citizens killing off a great many indigenous peoples and by various strategies stealing their lands—often in violation of official U.S. laws (“treaties”) usually with no remorse–and still with little in the way of reparations. The many millions of African Americans who died too young because of the slave trade or North American slavery are played down. This bloody past is not just “past,” but very much part of the American present, most especially for Native Americans and African Americans who are still suffering the longterm consequences of such violence (for full data and citations see chapters 6-7 in this recent book). The level of illiteracy about and cover-up of the U.S. racist past is very high, including from ill-informed media types. He soon makes this absurd statement (his capitals):

SLAVERY EXISTED ONLY BRIEFLY, AND IN LIMITED LOCALES, IN THE HISTORY OF THE REPUBLIC – INVOLVING ONLY A TINY PERCENTAGE OF THE ANCESTORS OF TODAY’S AMERICANS. . . .Given the fact that the majority of today’s non-black Americans descend from immigrants who arrived in this country after the War Between the States, only a tiny percentage of today’s white citizens – perhaps as few as 5% — bear any authentic sort of generational guilt for the exploitation of slave labor. Of course, a hundred years of Jim Crow laws, economic oppression and indefensible discrimination followed the theoretical emancipation of the slaves, but those harsh realities raise different issues from those connected to the long-ago history of bondage.

Actually he fudges his argument by dating the bloody economy of slavery from the Declaration of Independence and not from its actual beginning in 1619 at the hands of the early English colonists who started the American enslavement process at Jamestown. Dating it from its actual beginning to its end in the 13th Amendment (1865) means that the enslavement of African Americans (and some Native Americans in early decades) lasted more than half this country’s history. Counting the colonial period is usual in assessing this country’s history, except to play down its bloody origins as here. Deep structures of racial oppression that last 60 percent of a country’s history, and are then followed, as he admits, with nearly 100 years of legal segregation (more racial oppression and a type of near slavery for those targeted) mean this: that nearly 90 percent of this country’s 401-year history (1607-2008), indeed recently celebrated nationally, was characterized by the extreme oppression of slavery and segregation. A good social science analysis accents the fact that the impact of a societal foundation this lengthy and oppressive will still be felt heavily in a society’s contemporary reality–a point Senator Obama made in his recent speech on racial matters.

In addition, a great many white Americans, and far more than five percent, are the descendants of whites who benefitted in one way or another from slavery. During the 240 years of slavery, many non-slaveholding whites (for example, merchants, seamen, lawyers, teamsters, overseers, shipbuilders, bankers, skilled craftspeople, and so on) benefitted greatly from slavery, in the North and the South, a fact many conservative commentators wish to ignore. And the white immigrants exculpated here often benefited in similar ways from Jim Crow. (For much evidence and documentation of this, see chapters 6-7 in this book and early chapters in this book.) Later on he continues with other false assertions like this one:

IT’S NOT TRUE THAT THE U.S. BECAME A WEALTHY NATION THROUGH THE ABUSE OF SLAVE LABOR: THE MOST PROSPEROUS STATES IN THE COUNTRY WERE THOSE THAT FIRST FREED THEIR SLAVES. . . . The notion that America based its wealth and development on slave labor hardly comports with the obvious reality that for two hundred years since the founding of the Republic, by far the poorest and least developed section of the nation was precisely that region where slavery once prevailed.

Actually there is general agreement among social scientists that slavery-generated wealth was a major pillar of the wealth of this country. The large slave farms and the plantations and related slave-linked enterprises generated much of the surplus wealth for the colonies, and later the United States, for some decades. A majority of the famous founders (Jefferson, Madison, Washington) were wealthy mainly because they were slaveholders–and other founders, South and North (even Franklin), were slaveholders at some point in their prosperous lives. Americans benefited in many ways from the slavery economy of the Atlantic. Much of the oats, corn, flour, fish, lumber, soap, candles, and livestock exported by the continental colonies went to West Indies slave plantations. In 1770 no less than three-quarters of all New England exports of foodstuffs went to the West Indian plantations or to Africa. A substantial proportion of the wealth of the New England and Middle Atlantic colonies came from the trade with slave plantations in southern colonies and the Caribbean. From the early 1700s to the mid-1800s much surplus capital and wealth of North America came directly, or by means of economic multiplier effects, from the slave trade and slave plantations. With the growing demand for textiles, U.S. cotton production expanded greatly between the 1790s and the beginning of the Civil War. Cotton was shipped to British and New England textile mills, greatly spurring the wheels of British, U.S., and international commerce. By the mid-nineteenth century, New England cotton mills were the industrial leaders in value added in the United States. Without slave labor it seems likely that there would have been no successful textile industry, and without the cotton textile industry—the first major U.S. industry—it is unclear how or when the United States would have become a major industrial power. In the first half of the nineteenth century many northern merchants, bankers, and shipping companies became, as historian Douglass North has noted, “closely tied to cotton. New York became both the center of the import trade and the financial center for the cotton trade.” Slave-grown cotton became ever more central to the U.S. economy and accounted for about half of all exports, and thus for a large share of the profits generated by exports. In the North the profits from the cotton economy and sale of products to slave plantations stimulated the growth of investment in financial and insurance enterprises, other service industries, and various manufacturing concerns, as well as, by means of taxes, of investment in government infrastructure projects. Cotton-related activities were perhaps the most important source of economic expansion before the Civil War, and most of the cotton was grown by enslaved African Americans. Before the American revolution, trading in slaves was an “honorable” profession in northern ports, and after the revolution it was equally as honorable to trade in products made by slaves or in products traded to plantations. One biographer of leading merchant, T.H. Perkins, concluded there was not a New England:

“merchant of any prominence who was not then directly or indirectly involved in this trade.”

As the nineteenth century progressed, the sons and grandsons of the earlier traders in slaves and slave-related products often became the captains of the textile and other major industries in the North. The business profits made off enslavement were thereby transmitted across numerous generations. (For more data and references for the points, see Chapters 1-2 in this book .)

Slavery and the wealth it generated is indeed the foundation of this nation. One can even speculate as to whether the American revolution could have been fought without the wealth that slavery had generated for the white colonists–and thus whether there could have been a United States (at least when it happened) without the huge North American wealth generated by the massive slavery-economic complex sprawling across the Atlantic basin.